Ethics in Information Processing

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New technologies in information processing often raise ethical concerns, resulting from their creating new possibilities for human action. Computer ethics can be defined as moral philosophy concerning the ethical dilemmas involved in areas of information processing, including theories, approaches in decision-making situations, and methods of increasing awareness of ethics. These ethical and moral issues are among the most socially important aspects of information processing. There are two major problems in the area: (1) unethical behavior leading to immoral acts such as virus creation and software piracy and (2) lack of awareness about information technology security and information technology-related crimes.

Ethics in information processing is considered so important that the Computer Ethics Institute developed the following Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics.

Thou shalt not use a computer to harm other people.

Thou shalt not interfere with other people's computer work.

Thou shalt not snoop around in other people's computer files.

Thou shalt not use a computer to steal.

Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness.

Thou shalt not copy or use proprietary software for which you have not paid.

Thou shalt not use other people's computer resources without authorization or proper compensation.

Thou shalt not appropriate other people's intellectual output.

Thou shalt think about the social consequences of the program you are writing or the system you are designing.

Thou shalt always use a computer in ways that ensure consideration and respect for your fellow humans.

Use of information
% Ethical% Would You Do It?
High School YesUniv YesHigh School YesUniv Yes
1.You are the payroll clerk and know what everyone's salary is. A raise will be given next month. You feel that it would be OK to tell a few of your closest friends what they will be getting.0.360.270.540.29
2.Your job is in jeopardy because you have displayed very little initiative. You need this job because you have a family to support. You use a colleague's computer and see a proposal for a new product. You write it up as your own.
3.Today is the third day you have had trouble getting to work on time. You can punch in by computer from your home. You do it "just for today" so that you do not lose your job.
4.You work for the phone company and have access to private/unlisted numbers. A friend calls you saying he must make an emergency call and he needs to know a number that is unlisted. You give your friend the number.
5.A really nice word processing program is on the computer in your office. You would like to have it on your home computer, so you copy it.0.330.330.590.56
6.You work in a bank and have access to all bank account records. Out of curiosity, you check to see what your friends' bank balances are.


Ethical issues raised by information processing in business include confidentiality of data, software piracy, hacking, and stealing the property of others. In order to determine the ethical knowledge and behavior of young people, a survey of 780 high school and university business students was conducted (Vincent and Meche, 2003). The ethical knowledge survey was made up of nineteen questions, six of which were the information-processing questions shown in Table 1.

All of the actions in Table 1 are unethical. The responses shown in the table demonstrate that ethical problems exist among young people. As can be seen, some do not recognize ethical dilemmas, and many would participate in unethical behavior regardless. For instance, revealing confidential information, stealing the ideas of others, copying software, and punching the time clock from home are unethical behaviors. Unauthorized copying of softwaresoftware piracyis stealing. Besides being strictly illegal in many countries, it is morally wrong, because it violates the right of the owners of the software to receive payment for the use of their invention. The presence of illegal software used is highest in some Asian countries, followed by Eastern Europe, and the United States. Additionally, according to a Computer-world survey of 255 information systems professionals in corporate America, 53 percent have made unauthorized copies of commercial software ("Results of a Survey," 1995). The typical reason given was to try it out before buying it.

Hacking and virus creations are serious crimes that must be treated just like other criminal offenses. Generally speaking, hacking is breaking into other people's property; it is an immoral action that cannot be justified under any circumstances. One of the most popular hackers' arguments is that "electrons are freethey do not belong to anybody." This premise is invalid; there is no reason why electrically committed crimes should be treated differently from physical crimes.

Information on the Internet, including thousands of databases and more than four hundred magazines, is extremely hard to control. Search engines or robots have been designed to search for specific information in this immense collection of data. When a search engine filters or controls all the information that a person accesses, there is the danger that the person's view of the topic will become narrowed. This offers the designers of search engines an opportunity to manipulate people's minds by controlling the information they receive. Additionally, online shopping creates the possibility of disclosure of financial information, such as credit card information, to unauthorized parties.

Questions have arisen concerning computer graphics. For example, should graphical re-creations of incidents such as automobile accidents be allowed to be used in courtrooms? Is it right for an individual to electronically reproduce and then alter an artistic image originally created by someone else. It is apparent that there should be clear rules and regulations concerning cyberspace (Johnson, 2001).


Courtesy in information processing is often referred to as Netiquetteor etiquette on the Internet. E-mail and chat room etiquette is central to courtesy in cyberspace. In both situations people should follow the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Regarding e-mail, one should respond promptly to e-mail messages; think twice before sending personal information and private letters on business systems; not send flame mail (mail written in anger); not send duplicate copies of private e-mail without letting the recipient know who else is getting it; and not send unsolicited mail, such as pyramid schemes, chain letters, and junk mail.

Schools and employers should establish e-mail policies, present them in writing, and have training sessions for all involved. Lack of an e-mail policy creates legal risks. Often, the company is responsible for the e-mail of its employees. Additionally, e-mail is not a secure medium. Many company policy statements say that e-mail is owned or co-owned by the company and that the company has a right to inspect it. The federal Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986 prohibits the interception of any wire, oral, or electronic communication, but there is a business exception to the law that allows employers to intercept such communications that are deemed work-related.

Chat room etiquette involves communicating with others over the Internet. The same etiquette used in personal conversation should be observed here. Anonymity does not excuse bad behavior.


Computer pornography means depiction of actual sexual contact (hard-core) and depiction of nudity or lewd exhibition (soft-core). The courts and numerous U.S. statutes concur with the distinction between hard-core and soft-core pornography. Not all pornography meets the legal test for obscenity, however, nor are all depictions of sexual activity deemed pornographic (Albee, 1999). Pornography and obscenity certainly raise a few moral questions: Are pornographic materials morally objectionable or not? Is it right for the state to regulate access to pornographic material by consenting adults? In all the confusion one point should be made: Pornography degrades human beings.

Feminists consider pornography to be demeaning to women, contributing to their being seen as objects of desire and control for men. Some religious leaders maintain that pornography ought to be banned because it is morally wrong. Meanwhile pornography continues to be a huge force in the social and personal context (Albee, 1999).


The following guidelines should be considered when developing codes of ethics for schools and businesses:

  1. Identify prevailing social values before addressing current issues in the school or workplace. Examples of ethical values important to society might include trustworthiness, responsibility, respect, empathy, fairness, and citizenship.
  2. In composing the code of ethics, give examples of behaviors that reflect each value.
  3. Have key members of the organization review the code and provide input.
  4. Review any rules or values incorporated into the code to assure that they adhere to relevant laws and regulations; this ensures that the school or organization is not breaking any of them.
  5. Indicate that all employees are expected to conform to the values stated in the code of ethics.
  6. Announce and distribute the new code of ethics to all involved.
  7. Update the code at least once a year.

Examples of topics typically addressed in codes of ethics include: dressing appropriately; avoiding illegal drugs; following the instructions of superiors; being reliable and prompt; maintaining confidentiality; not accepting personal gifts from stakeholders; avoiding discrimination based on race, gender, age or sexual orientation; avoiding conflicts of interest; complying with laws and regulations; not using the organization's property for personal use; and reporting illegal or questionable activity (McNamara, 1998).


In direct and indirect ways people begin to learn ethical values from birth. While the family and religious institutions are assigned the primary responsibility for ethical education, schools have traditionally been charged with teaching and reinforcing moral values, especially those directly related to school behaviors. Since many of the ethical issues that surround technology deal with school behaviors, they are an appropriate and necessary part of the school curriculum. Schools must create technology environments that help students avoid temptations. Computer screens that are easily monitored, use of passwords, and logging in and out of secure network systems, along with videotaping of lab areas, all help remove the opportunities for technology misuse in the media center or classroom.

Teachers and leaders of student groups who want to promote good ethical behavior can use methods such as creating codes of ethics, using stories of good or bad ethical behavior as examples in discussions, inviting speakers, and using case studies, role playing, games, simulations, and mock trials. Of primary importance is the teacher's or student leader's own behavior, which should be exemplary. Technology privileges should not be given to students until they have demonstrated that they know and can apply ethical standards and school policies.

Finally, measures should be taken to improve the solutions to the ethical dilemmas that arise in information processing. There is a need for more specific professional guidelines and codes of ethics; research on ethical problems; education and training; and cooperation among all who are involved with information-processing ethics, including, but not limited to, theologians, philosophers, computer scientists, educators, business people, and attorneys.

see also Information Processing


Albee, Reid D. (1999). "Ethical Dimensions: Ethical Considerations of Pornography." Retrieved October 18, 2005, from

Johnson, Deborah G. (2001). Computer Ethics (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

McNamara, Carter (1998). "Complete Guide to Ethics Management: An Ethics Toolkit for Managers." Retrieved October 18, 2005, from

Vincent, Annette, and Meche, Melanie (2003). "Knowledge of Ethics Among Teens and Young Adults." Ethics and Critical Thinking, 2003(4) 1-11.

Annette Vincent

Melanie A. Meche

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Ethics in Information Processing

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